- Alpe d'Huez
- Caverne Pont d’Arc
- Col du Berthiand
- Col de Tamié
- Gorges de l’Ardèche
- Gorges Le Doux
- Grand Colombier
- Grotte de Madeleine
- La Giettaz
- La Léchère
- La Rosière
- Lac Roselend
- Plateau des Glières
- Route des Grandes Alpes
- Serre Chevalier
The Isère and its Raging Rapids
Following the rapid descent from famed ski resort at Les Arcs (average slope of 6.1%), the peloton follows the Isère River for the next 58-kilometers. Starting at Bourg-Saint-Maurice through Notre-Dame-de-Briancon, the riders skirt through the Tarentaise Valley. Among its winter sport association, the Isère is also known for its whitewater rafting and kayaking adventures from Bourg-Saint-Maurice through Centron, a 22-kilometer trip. Over this period, the river drops 300 meters, making for excellent with Class II through Class IV rapids. The rapids at Aime are particularly well-known. Several companies offer trips down the river. Check out Reve d’Eau or Francecraft for all kinds of activities and skill levels. Even if you’re not up for getting wet, it’s always fun to watch the rafts come barreling down the river and navigate the rapids with skill and grace … or not so much.
I was ten years old for the 1992 Olympics in Albertville. In fact, this may have been the first Olympics that I actually remember. Names like Alberto Tomba and Viktor Petrenko, and as an American, Kristi Yamaguchi, Nancy Kerrigan, and Bonnie Blair, were etched in my mind along with far-off places like Albertville and La Plagne. Today, Alberville, the Savoie’s third largest city, retains an air of Olympic gold. The Olympic Village sits a little less than two kilometers southwest of the city’s main district. Only two elements of the games remain, le Halle de Glace Olympique and L’anneau de Vitesse. The former is a large 5,500 seat arena distinctive for its futuristic and 1990s-characteristic blue metal “netting” that covered the arena. This stadium was used for figure skating and short track speed skating while the adjacent L’anneau was an outdoor arena used for speed skating, the last outdoor arena of its kind. The area of the opening and closing ceremonies consisted of temporary buildings and is now marked the former Théâtre des Cérémonies central spire. While all Olympics are historic for one reason or another, the Albertville games were extraordinarily special as the first games in a post-Soviet world. At these games, six now independent countries of the former Communist bloc competed as one team while another five new countries, both former Soviet and not, competed for the first time. In addition, 1992 saw the inclusion of several demonstration sports including curling, freestyle skiing, and the never again seen speed skiing at Les Arcs. It was also during these Olympics that China won its first winter medal at L’anneau de Vitesse and the southern hemisphere won its first in the slalom. From Albertville to Beijing, the Winter Olympics are always an event to behold.
Distinctive By Nature
Annecy is a mountain town nestled at the foot of the highest Alpine mountains. The town itself lies at just about 400 meters in elevation (1300+ feet) and at the top of Lac Annecy. At thirteen kilometers in length and a max depth of 82 meters (270 feet), this is the third largest lake in France. The old town – charming, quaint, and historic – is usually listed among the most beautiful villages in France. Of course, the lake contributes to this scene, but is also an often-overlooked attraction. When I visited in 2012, I of course was struck by the town’s beauty and the picturesque composition of the Lake’s clear blue water and the striking backdrop of mountains. Indeed, it’s the perfect introduction to the Alpine environment. As I left my hotel under the Chateau de Annecy and made my way towards the Plage de Marquisats for a quick swim, I was fully prepared for a chilly experience despite the warm August air. To my delightful surprise, the water was warm and refreshing. Little did I know that the Lake reaches temperatures of 24 degrees (75 Fahrenheit) Celsius in the middle of summer. With this in mind, the summertime possibilities become endless at Lac Annecy. Beautiful beaches line the lake, but for a fully immersive experience, rent a paddle board and head out to explore. In places, the lake is a mere two kilometers wide, so even one paddle board rental recommends crossing the lake for lunch. Either way, stand up paddle boarding is a great way to see Annecy from a different vantage point, one that is distinctive by nature.
The Royal Monastery of Brou
Smaller than other monasteries that we’ve discovered so far along the 2016 Tour de France route, the Royal Monastery of Brou is perhaps more ornate and striking as an excellent example of flamboyant Gothic architecture. Built from 1513 to 1532 as an Augustinian monastery, the complex was also the last remaining spirit and energy of poor Margaret of Austria. Margaret was the daughter of Emperor Maximilian but even before the age of 11, she was engaged to the Dauphin Charles VIII. For political reasons, the new King of France renounced his engagement and married the Dutchess of Brittany. At age 21, Margaret married John of Castile who died one year later. She then married Philibert le Beau who also died shortly thereafter. This all occurred before she turned 30. It was from these consecutive heartbreaks that she developed the motto “Fortune infortune fort une” or “Fate very hard on one woman.” Margaret dedicated the Monastery to her love Philibert and her woes. Both lie in rest in the heart of the church and Margaret’s motto is forever etched in her tomb as a testament to the search and disappointment of lasting love.
Cave of Wonders
The finish to the 2016 Individual Time Trial occurred at the newly completed Caverne du Pont d’Arc. This museum replicates and interprets the Grotte Chauvet which is only a few kilometers to the south on the Gorges de l’Ardèche, adjacent to the famed Pont d’Arc. Discovered in 1994, Chauvet may be less well-known than its sister at Lascaux, but at 36,000 years old it is the oldest and best preserved cave paintings in the world. Caverne Pont d’Arc is the means by which this preservation occurs. You see, the artwork deteriorates just by people interacting with and visiting these delicate specimens. So it was necessary to construct the Caverne. At 3,500 square meters, it is the largest decorated cave replica in the world. Here, Chauvet comes alive. It tries to replicate the full experience of the natural cave, complete with the darkness, humidity, and temperature of the Grotte-Chauvet. In the museum, the Caverne presents life for Cro-Magnon man. Truly, the Caverne is a culmination of artwork, culture, science, and technology coming together for one purpose.
A Monument to the Maquis de l’Ain
The tiny village of Cerdon, population 800, is a jewel with lots of history and variety. Tucked-away in a hidden spot in the Jura Mountains, Cerdon is home to the Cerdon AOC of rosé wines, a famed Copper Factory (La Cuivrerie de Cerdon), and ancient Roman road (D11). The hillsides glean with vineyards and the town is rustic and quaint. On the road out of town, up towards Labalme, is perhaps the most poignant reminder of this area’s recent history and contribution to the World War II French Resistance. On a sharp curve on the D1084 is a monument and cemetery dedicated to the Maquis de l’Ain et du Haut-Jura. With its proximity to both neutral Switzerland and Lyon, the Ain became the center of the Resistance in the south. Here, the Jura Mountains offered shelter to a guerilla force that was particularly successful. The memory and honor of this past still resonates locally as illustrated through the monument and archival website that has documented the stories of Resistance fighters over the years. Be sure to keep an eye out for this special site as the peloton passes by, retracing the Resistance steps into the safety of the mountains.
Chambéry’s Fontaine des … Eléphants?
Chambéry is a town at roughly 300 meters in elevation. It is one of the Alps great, albeit lesser known, gateway towns. As such, one of its greatest claims to fame is unexpected and without knowing the history, nonsensical. This is the Fontaine des Eléphants. So what are four elephants doing in the Alpine foothills? It’s not a tribute to Hannibal but a tribute to one of Chambéry’s favorite sons, the General Count de Boigne. Born in 1751 in Chambéry, de Boigne traveled to India at the age of 27 after having already served for many years in different armies across Europe. It was the life of a mercenary and Boigne became ambitious and more importantly, adventurous. After only ten years in the country, Boigne had an intimate understanding and familiarity of the Indian people. He traveled and served extensively, ultimately leading the Maratha Empire to conquer much of the subcontinent. His exploits for the Maratha Empire continue through 1796, at which time he oversaw an army of nearly 100,000 in the last native state to resist the English in India. Wherever he went, Boigne imported his European and Savoyard heritage. His armies were trained and organized in European tradition and the Savoyard flag adorned the uniforms. Boigne received the Empire’s highest honors and amassed a great fortune. Upon his return to France, Boigne became a local hero and benefactor in Chambéry, where he dies in 1830. The city erected the exotic fountain only eight years later and today, many institutions benefit from his financial legacy or carry his name with honor.
The Col du Berthiand
In 2016, the Tour de France crossed the Ain River into Serrières-sur-Ain, is the heart of the limestone Gorges de l’Ain. A series of dams along the river have transformed the river from its natural state, but in doing so have provided spectacular scenery and monumental bridges. This is the peloton’s foray into the sub-Alps, the Jura Mountains. The area’s beauty is stunning and the vistas magnificent. The Col du Berthiand, a minor Category 2 climb just past Serrières illustrates this point beautifully. The climb is breathtaking for all involved. Almost immediately after entering town, the road begins to go up. Only 6 kilometers in length, it rises 460 meters with an average gradient of 7.67% and a max of 15.0%. Surely this climb is deceiving for those thinking that a Category 2 climb will be easy. The climb is often included in more regional races but has only been included in the Tour de France three times before, in 1991, 2002, and 2006. Only once, in 2006 was a Frenchman, Sylvain Calzati, the first over the summit. From the top, the quaint town and Pont de Serrières-sur-Ain sit quietly below, proudly monitoring their contribution to cycling greatness.
The Cheese of an Alpine Abbey
High in the mountains above beautifully diverse Albertville is a special place that should be a detour for those stopping in the city for any period of time. Up the Col de Tamié, just past Plancherine on the peloton’s route are several fortress-type complexes. One is the 19th century defensive Fort Tamié and the other the much older, picturesque, and fascinating Cistercian Abbaye Notre-Dame de Tamié. The Abbaye was founded in 1133 although the current buildings date to the 17th century. Soon, this was a place for contemplation and refuge as it became a known place for travelers to rest and seek shelter. Due to the anti-clerical ideology of the French Revolution, the Abbaye closed in 1793 only to reopened in 1861. The Abbaye remains in operation today and is home to a few dozen monks who are welcoming of the public to attend mass with them. Importantly, the monks also introduced agriculture to the mountain over the centuries, especially pastures for grazing. The Abbaye is perhaps best known for its unpasteurized cow’s milk cheese. The monks make some 400 kilograms of cheese daily and sell only in town or at the Abbaye itself. This soft cheese, simply called Abbaye de Tamié, is similar to Reblochon but stronger.
The Pearl of the Alps
Described by Victor Hugo as the “the Pearl of the Alps,” Combloux sits just uphill from Sallanches with 360-degree views of the surrounding mountains and most notably, Mont Blanc. It boomed as a tourism destination in the early 1900s. The centerpiece of this period was the glorious Grand Hôtel du Mont-Blanc. The hotel was purchased and advertised by the PLM railroad during the roaring 20’s. This imposing chateau-style building came with a view, golf course, and ice skating rink. Most interesting, was its adjacent mountain ecological lake, the only in France. While the hotel was sold as private apartments after World War II, the ecological lake continues to be a large draw for visitors today. The lake has perfectly pure water with temperatures reaching 26 degrees Celsius, thanks to its natural ecosystem and plants. To keep this environment pristine, attendance is limited to 700 swimmers.
Nature All Around
The town of Culoz is situated on the mighty Rhône and at the base of the incomparable Grand Colombier. In many ways, Culoz is defined by its relationship and proximity to nature. The mountains and river meet just southwest of Culoz in 473 hectares designated the Réserve Naturelle du Marais de Lavours. As the name suggests, this is a swamp or marsh, although “swamp” may not do this serene environment justice. The reserve is steeped in history even though it was established officially in 1984. As early as the 8th century B.C., settlers used this riverside marsh as pristine grazing land for livestock. The marsh has been filled-in with rich soil and sediment by the Rhône and Séran rivers ofver thousands of years. This resulted in a marsh rich in peat deposits that farmers also cultivated. In the 12th century, the grazing became large-scale. Two groups of monks, including those from the nearby Abbaye d’Hautecombe, brought their herds here as well. Grazing continued through the late 20th century with as many as 5,000 animals occupying the landscape at any one time. In 1970, grazing ceased and crop farming began. Some of this started earlier, but now farmers changed the visual nature of the area with varied plants. The reserve is home to over 371 species of plants, 400 fungi species, and more than 2,800 animal species. This is all able to be explored through the reserve’s intricate “paths on stilts.” This boardwalk meanders 1.2 kilometers to observe and experience the native habitat. It’s an unusual place to visit but one that is rewarding year-round
Barrage de Génissiat
Imagine the largest (and scariest) water slide you’ve ever seen. Then imagine witnessing the power of 1,200 cubic meters (317,000 gallons) per second of water rushing down the slope meters below you in a “ski jump.” This is the Barrage de Génissiat. This hydroelectric dam, built in 1947, was the second of its kind built on the mighty Rhône. The first was constructed more than fifty years earlier near Lyon. Génissiat rises 104 meters (341 feet). From the water’s flow, its six turbines produce 1.7 trillion kilowatts each year. Not surprisingly, Génissiat became the largest hydroelectric plant in Europe upon completion. Visitors can now awe at this impressive structure. Tour and galleries are available for those interested in the engineering or history behind the dam’s construction. One of the least discussed aspects of such an undertaking are the multitudes of laborers, both French and foreign, who sacrificed to make this dream a reality. In the end, the dam is a man-made addition to the beauty and splendor of the Rhône, but one that is a wonder in itself.
The Incomparable Gorges de l’Ardèche
The theme for many stages is the incomparable Gorges de l’Ardèche and its associated Reserve Naturelle des Gorges de l’Ardèche. In total, the gorges run from Saint-Martin- d’Ardeche just west of the mighty Rhone to Vallon Pont d’Arc, some 30 kilometers upstream. Often called the “European Grand Canyon,” the gorge is formed by the Ardèche River writhing its way through the limestone landscape. The river is immensely popular with kayakers and white-water rafters in the summer months who come for its cool waters and majestic scenery. Despite its popularity, however, the Gorges de l’Ardèche can seem more remote than many of the other Gorges of southern France – the Gorges du Tarn of the 2015 Tour de France readily come to mind. Unlike other river gorges, the Ardèche is devoid of the tiny picturesque villages along its route between Vallon and Saint-Martin, with only two campgrounds along the river. Unlike other summer visitors, the Tour riders will have this road to themselves as they drop in on the narrow D240 which jogs along the cliff ridge. The views from above are magnificent but not for the faint of heart, so this may in fact be a stage not to miss from your seat at home.
Chugging Along Gorges Le Doux
The Tour de France has a habit of finding some of France’s great scenic gorges. This is once again true along this year’s Stage 16 from Le Puy-en Velay to Romans-sur-Isere. About a quarter of the way through the stage, the peloton enters the Ardeche and the river Le Doux, a tributary of the Rhone. From the Upper Loire to Tournon-sur-Rhone, le Doux carves a picturesque gorge. The Tour route picks it up around Désaignes and follows it, more or less, until it empties into the Rhone. Along the way, an historical railway runs thirty-three kilometers between Lamastre and Tournon. This metric gauge railway is the Chemin de Fer du Vivarais, or CFV. The most beautiful portion of this trip is at the beginning, in Lamastre and Le Crestet. This consisted of one of the many arms of the Vivarais network of rails constructed between 1891 and 1903. This portion in particular was built in 1886 and closed in 1968. Now reopened as a tourist train, the railway continues to operate with its traditional steam power and using authentic late 1880s Mallet locomotives. It’s a great way to enjoy the Gorges du Doux and all the uniquely French viaducts, stations, and tunnels along the way. All Aboard!
France’s Grand Colombier
In the historical Bugey region, the foothills of the Jura Mountains, sits the monolith-like Grand Colombier – its highest point at 1,571 meters. From the top, those who have enough stamina for a short hike from the parking lot are rewarded with a view to die for. Here, the water-filled Rhone River valley and Lac du Bourget present themselves to the south while the beauty of the Jura and Alps to the east, and the calming agricultural fields and hills of the Bugay to the north and west. On a clear day, Mont Blanc sits on the horizon pointing into the sky. On bike, the Grand Colombier, however, is another matter and not a detour to be taken lightly. The Tour first included the Col du Grand Colombier in 2012 and riding it twice this year, with its average of 6.9% (14% max) on the slope from Culoz, the peloton’s first ascent from Vrieu-le-Petit will be harrowing at 10.6% average and a whopping 28% maximum.
Grenoble’s Silk City
While much of Grenoble centers around its downtown and looming Bastille that overlooks the city, a small museum in an often-overlooked part of the city operates as a tribute to an industry that came and went in the relatively quick blink of this city’s eye. In the city’s Échirolles neighborhood, in a non-descript small building on a dirt road in a former industrial area is the quirky but interesting Musée de la Viscose – the Museum of Silk. Grenoble was a silk producer for centuries, although no larger than others in France or Europe. Yet it was in the 20th century that manufacturers started creating artificial silk and by 1920, artificial silk outsold genuine silk. One of the companies leading the way was Celletex, with its headquarters in the Ardennes. Yet satellite facilities sprung up across the country and the one in Grenoble became particularly large and important. It opened in 1927 and like other production plants, became in industrial city complete with workers’ housing and services – not unlike other factories of the industrial revolution at the same time throughout the world. Over time, through mergers, market ups and downs, the silk, or viscose industry consolidated and eventually declined and saw the closure of all but two factories in France. Grenoble’s Cité Viscose closed in 1989, putting the final few hundred workers out of jobs. Nevertheless, the viscose city left an indelible impression on the landscape and memory of Grenoble and the Musée de la Viscose tells this story and keeps the memories of this short but important part of Grenoble’s history alive.
An Underground Natural City
As the Tour passes along the Gorges de l’Ardèche, much of the beauty (not to mention history) lies below ground. Imagine that millions of years ago, what later became the gorges formed by the Ardèche River were submerged under an expansive sea. Over the eons, water cut away at the limestone and basalt to form the caves that the Gorges de l’Ardèche are now known for. Now high above the canyons carved by the river, some of these were occupied by prehistoric men while others lie untouched by human hands. In all, there are seven caves to explore. Most notably among them is the colorful Grotte de Madeleine, some six kilometers south of Saint-Remèze. A local shepherd discovered the cave in 1887 and was first only reachable by rope. Overlooking the gorge 50 meters above, this cave features stalactites that are 2 million years old and continue to grow at 1-2 cm per century. Watching stalactites may be like watching grass grow, but the cave provides a thrilling light show that brings this natural wonder to life and is not to be missed.
An Unexpected Champion
In the small town of Hauteville-Lompnes, we pay homage to one of cycling’s unlikely champions, Roger Pingeon. Pingeon was born on a small farm in the nearby hamlet of Lesines in 1940. Interestingly enough, Pingeon did not grow-up riding the surrounding Jura Mountains because he only started riding at the age of seventeen. Farming was in his blood, but it wasn’t in his heart. After flailing around trying to find a viable profession, he took up cycling on the side. First he joined the local Hauteville cycling club but he quickly progressed to amateur racing. Pingeon saw results fast, winning races and moving up the ranks. He was a natural. Nevertheless, he was called to military service from 1960-1962 but resumed his passion on the bike when he returned, all the while working as a plumber while racing independently. Finally, in 1965 the ambitious Pingeon turned pro and made an instant impression on the sport. He placed 12th in his first Tour de France, which after eight starts and six finishes in the Tour, would be his worst placing. Despite these achievements, he was constantly plagued by self-doubt and expectations for success. Overall, Pingeon would go on to win the Tour in 1967 and the Vuelta in 1969, becoming an important rider in the era between Anquetil and Merckx and local Hauteville hero.
Vernacular Architecture of the High Alps
The Alps have great things to offer: vistas, mountains, hiking, skiing, wonderful cheese, and of course a proud heritage. It’s a vernacular culture displayed through both architecture and tools. La Giattaz is one of many places to view these unassuming but important traditions. Located in the sleepy Vl d’Arly, La Giettaz’s name in fact derives from Latin referencing logging, similar to Les Gets. This wood then became the foundation and walls for the area’s typical chalet-style residences. Of course built to shelter inhabitants from snow, the upper half of the homes is heavy thick timber to aid insulation while the bottom half is a less breathable material that will be fully covered by snow in winter months. Set into the hillside, the homes appear to float on this bright white foundation. Meanwhile the roofs widely overhang the home, providing for additional shelter throughout the year. The road through town is quite windy so the peloton will have plenty of opportunity to see its standard layout around a centralized church. Many of the buildings here are newer to take advantage of the adjacent ski resort, but the hillsides still speak to a long architectural tradition. If you’re staying a little bit longer, the town also features a museum that portrays the customary Savoyard living spaces and workshops. It’s the perfect place to understand this and other Alpine villages.
Strolling the Cascade du Morel
Feeding into the Isère is the Morel River, although more like a little creek. In La Léchère, the Morel is nothing to scream about, but one kilometer upstream is the tranquil and serene system of dams that over the course of another kilometer leads to the Cascade du Morel. An easy path strolls along the system of 57 stone dams that were built in the 1800s to slow the flow of the Morel into La Léchère. The result is a slight yet steady stream that looks as if two mirrors were reflecting each other to create a seemingly never-ending path of water. Some 500 meters along the path, it begins to rise more steeply, to an overlook of the real waterfall. In total, it’s not the waterfall itself that is the destination, but the journey along the way that holds the visitor’s attention. It is a family-friendly yet quiet place to enjoy a bucolic yet essentially man-made interaction with nature. Regardless, it’s a nice place to see the Tour and still experience the essence of Alpine beauty.
The Not-so-little Saint Bernard Pass
Perhaps you’ve heard of the famed Grand Saint Bernard Pass, separating Switzerland and Italy? I am here today to tell you about its little brother, the Little Saint Bernard Pass, separating France and Italy at La Rosiere. From the ski resort at 1,850 meters, the border is only 6.45 kilometers as the crow flies. The pass has been a trade route since prehistoric times and as such is a wonderfully diverse place to experience a millennium of history. Whether in summer or winter, traversing the countryside from La Rosiere to the Italian village of La Thuile in the Aosta Valley is as easy as it is mind blowing. In winter, a combination of four chair and drag lifts get you to the top of Italy’s Espace Saint Bernard ski area. In summer, the ski trails turn into thrilling mountain biking trails that again offer international opportunities. The fifteen-kilometer Col du Petite-Saint-Bernard route climbs up to the Fort de la Redoute on the 2,383 meter Col du Traversette before a rapid descent to the Col du Petite Saint Bernard and a more in-depth tour of the French-Italian backcountry before heading back to La Rosiere. Looking for something a little slower? Enjoy any one of countless hikes through hills filled with wildflowers and breathtaking views of the surrounding peaks. Walk the remnants of a Roman road or discover the ancient history of the pass. With any of these, enjoy breakfast in France and lunch in Italy. There’s so much to discover in La Rosiere that this is one place not to miss along the 2018 Tour route.
An Alpine Dam that Rocks
High up in the Alps, at an elevation of 1,546 meters, Lac de Roselend is one of the most gorgeous in France. Not only that, but it s nestled between two climbs, the latter of which, the Cormet de Roselend, offer wonderful views of this turquoise-colored, 130-meter-deep artificial lake. Indeed, this serene environment was created by the damming of the Doron de Roselend and submerging of the Roselend hamlet by the fourth highest dam in France. The surrounding mountains, and especially the towering Rocher du Vent, give testament to this fact. The Barrage de Roselend was finished in 1962 as a triumvirate of hydro-electric dams in the area that provide enough power for 450,000 local inhabitants. The dam itself is quite spectacular with its .8-kilometer long span and combined arch-gravity and buttress engineered to hold back 187 million cubic meters of water. On one side, the dam rises 150 meters while on the lake side, it appears to only be 20 meters. The 2018 peloton crossed the dam on its way from the Col du Pre to the Cormet de Roseland.
Experience La Maison du Bois
With only twenty-seven Michelin 3-Star restaurants nationwide, when the Tour passes one, it is a rarity that must be honored and devoured. Outside of Paris, Stage 10 offers the gastronomic (think foodie) fan a mountain high experience that is truly unique. It is at the top of the Col de la Croix Fry, at an elevation of 1,650 meters (5,000+ feet) France gained the newest addition to this elite group. The 5-Star Michelin hotel and 3-Star restaurant, Maison du Bois, are the latest brainchild of Annecy-born Marc Veyrat. Perhaps eccentric in his characteristic and distinctive wide-brimmed black hat, it is this unconventionality that has defined Veyrat’s approach to food with organic and molecular flair that has garnered him three Michelin Stars at each of his three restaurants over the course of his career. Maison du Bois is its own sustainable ecofriendly village that epitomizes the meaning of sustainability. The sprawling complex, with garden, spa, and pond, features breathtaking views of Mont Blanc’s snow-capped summit. Inside, the restaurant can be described as rustic modern, with wood paneling and exemplary views of the slopes. It is elegant but not stuffy. But the food is what keeps people guessing. Veyrat’s style has been described as “mineral and pastoral” – eating naturally from the world around us. With an emphasis on organics and local consumption (think farm to table at its best), Veyrat’s 3-Star rating is all the more impressive given the seemingly limiting location. This is where the chef’s creativity takes over, for he exhibits his knowledge of molecular gastronomy to make it all work. Even for the price, to experience La Maison du Bois is to witness a genius in his element.
The Hills are Alive
Megève is now known as a ski resort made famous by the Rothschilds in the 1920s. Indeed, it still maintains plenty of sights year-round. Its hills, however, hold even more magical surprises for the energetic willing to stretch their legs. Some five kilometers north of town is the Col de Jaillet. The scenery is wonderfully green and serene with to-die-for views of Mont Blanc and the rest of the Alps. But here there’s more than just natural beauty to seek out. Well before skis and bikes occupied these hills, this was the Roman frontier. Immediately to the west were the territories of “barbarian” Celtic tribes that were not to be infringed upon. Naturally, the Romans placed markers indicating the extent or “limit” of the Empire. Discovered in 1963, several of these markers have been found with the most well known sitting atop the Col de Jaillet. This marker reads “FIN” or “limit” and dates from 74 AD. Take a hike to search for these ancient markers and imagine yourself here 2,000 years ago.
“Creme tangerine, Montelimar.” The Tour de France is a feast for the traveling stomach. So let’s begin with a little dessert. As George Harrison noted in Savoy Truffle, the Montelimar nougat is something of a treasure. Coming across the Mediterranean Sea, it became a local specialty in the 18th century. But the Montelimar nougat replaces the typical walnut with locally grown Almonds. Local nougatiers bestowed travelling royalty with a sizeable gift of the candy and for centuries, the Montelimar nougat was presented as a traditional gift, not only among friends and family, but at international affairs in Paris as well. Producers also took advantage of the town’s location along the Rhone’s major N7 thoroughfare from the Cote d’Azur north to Lyon and beyond, also affectionaly known as the Route des vacances or Holiday Route. Without fail, car-crazy vacationers would stop-off in Montelimar to stock-up on the local delicacy before starting (or finishing) their holidays. In these ways, the Montelimar nougat became nationally and internationally known. Today, the legacy lives on. There are dozens of nougat shops and museums, each dedicated to their own commercial craft and some even complete with factory tours. From the Arnaud Soubeyran Nougat De Montelimar to the Nougat Diane de Poytiers and the eponymous Palais des Bonbons & du Nougat Montélimar, it is readily evident that the nougat is a source of local pride. In total, the town produces some 4500 tons of nougats. Why not stop off and try some yourself?
Soaring High Above Lac Annecy
Montmin, at the top of the Col de la Forclaz de Montmin, is a place to catch some major air. The small town of only a few hundred lies nearly 700 meters overlooking Lac Annecy and 1100 meters below the towering Tournette. Its location affords it breathtaking views, precipitous drop-offs, and wonderful wind. The result is a paraglider’s paradise. Montmin is one of the premier paragliding spots in all of Europe and hosted the 1995 Hang Gliding Championship of France. There are numerous outfitters and companies that will introduce you to the sport or provide pros with the necessary gear. If you have ever thought of trying paragliding or hang gliding, this just may be the place to do it. If you would rather keep your feet on the ground, try hiking up the Tournette, where you can see the paragliders and mountain goats up close.
La Ferme de Victorine
In France, the Michelin Red Guide, reviewing restaurants and hotels, is a big deal. All too often, the Red Guide is overshadowed by its renowned one, two, and three-star lists. But one additional rating is worth discussing and seeking out … the Bib Gourmand. The Bib Gourmand rating is reserved for particularly good food at moderate prices. Namely, these are the best down to earth restaurants as my wife might say. There are some 630 such restaurants throughout France. For many towns, though, even having a Bib Gourmand named establishment might be a big deal. This is the case for tiny Notre-Dame-de-Bellecombe. Just this year, Bellecombe’s own La Ferme de Victorine made the list. The story and atmosphere of this wonderful restaurant are worth exploring. As a child, James Ansanay-Alex was inspired by his grandmother Victorine, who ran a grocery and bar from her home in the 1920s. The business grew and continued across generations and the restaurant opened in 1991. La Ferme de Victorine specializes in local Savoie produce and methods such as smoked potatoes in hay while enjoying the rustic traditions of the farmhouse. If in the area of Megeve, this will be a nice change of pace.
For Reflection and Resistance
There are often a diverse set of options to view the Tour, but perhaps none equal the pristine and serene nature of offered by the Plateau de wonderful Plateau des Glières, topped by the Col de Glières. With an average gradient of 11.2% and a max of 23.4 over 6.7 kilometers, this will be the hardest of the day’s four climbs and could see someone strike out for the Yellow Jersey or the day’s win. Aside from a strategic cycling position, the Plateau is a tranquil and beautiful wide meadow surrounded by craggy yet accessible mountains. The ridgelines make for excellent day-hiking excursions and offer glorious views of the Plateau, Mont Blanc, and the white-topped Alps. From places like the Pointe de la Québlette, one can see the expanses and geographic terrain that forms this island in the sky. Such isolation (and proximity to neutral Switzerland) also made this area a centerpiece to the World War II Resistance. To commemorate the sacrifices of the wider French guerilla efforts to fight back, and especially those several hundred maquis who died during a siege on March 12, 1944. The breathtaking memorial is now the National Monument to the Resistance, designed by sculptor Emile Gilioli, making this a place for reflection, inspiration, and victory.
A City on the Cliff
France is filled with placed that one can only dream about. Pont-en-Royans and its cliff-side dwellings is one of those places. The town itself lies at the entrance to the monumental Vercors massif and the cavernous Gorges de la Bourne, of course cut by the raging torrents of the Bourne River. Pont-en-Royans, then was cited at the first place a bridge could be built to span the gorge. To give an idea of what lay upstream, it was the Gorges of the Bourne that gave Hannibal his first major challenge to crossing the Alps. More than a millennium later, Pont-en-Royans served as a logging trade center and the last outpost into the alpine frontier. As such, it developed a sizeable population, but instead necessarily built upwards. The houses that we see today were built in the 1500s to adapt to the environment rather than move away from it. The result is a transition from the river’s rocky crags that transform seamlessly into beautiful residential towers. The architecture forms a truly remarkable piece of artwork that is a pleasure to simply marvel at.
Crossing the Viaduc de la Roizonne
Shortly after starting out from La Mure, the 2017 peloton of the Tour de France entered into an alpine valley of La Bonne. A river with twenty-two tributaries, including La Roizonne, transportation was obviously difficult to coordinate. In this context, a railroad was built to connect Saint-Georges-de-Commiers in the north with La Mure in the last few decades of the 1800s. With the success of the railroad, smaller branches were constructed in this part of the Alps. In 1904, developers conceived of a line from La Mure to Valbonnais, ten kilometers to the east. While it was a relatively short distance, the mountainous terrain did not make this an easy feat from the very beginning. Among the trials would be a crossing of the Roizonne River. Luckily, an ancient bridge already existed connecting the town of Roizon with the now ruined Chateau de Rattier, so engineers followed historical precedent and constructed a marvel of a viaduct here. The resulting Viaduct de la Roizonne became one of the latest masonry structures built in France and is truly a spectacle to behold. Set on a precipice of sheer rock overhanging the river, the bridge is 110 meters tall with a 74 meter span and finally completed in 1928. The railroad ceased to run in 1952 and was subsequently open to vehicular (and bike) traffic.
Lacing up Your Shoes in Romans
Who knew that in the Rhone town of Romans-sur-Isère is Le Musée de la Chaussure, otherwise known as the International Shoe Museum. With a little bit of background, it makes sense. The first leather tanners settled here as early as the 1300s. This started a rich tradition of producing fine leather. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution in France, the town became a center of the footwear industry. Joseph Fénestrier founded his renowned shoe brand here in the late 19th century and soon, others were doing the same. By 1850, the city broke the 10,000 inhabitant mark and new railroads linked the town with other commercial centers. The industry faltered between 1929 and 1945, but in the postwar, it experienced resurgence with the likes of Stephane Kélian, Robert Clergerie, and Charles Jourdan, who was born in neighboring Bourg-de-Péage. During this period, Jourdan alone employed 4,000 people and became the first French shoe brand to be sold in the U.S. While some production has fallen off, the town is still a center for making shoes in France. This heritage is celebrated at the Musée de la Chaussure, which now occupies the former Convent of the Visitation. Located right in the middle of town, this historic complex of buildings and gardens constructed in 1832 is a surprising place to find a museum dedicated to such a modern industry. The museum features over 20,000 types of shoes, the museum successfully transforms our image of shoes from a utilitarian object to one that is an embodiment of art while telling the history of shoemaking in Romans. It is also a gathering place for locals, especially after dark, when the convent becomes a display of lights evoking the magic of shoes … quite a unique spectacle to see.
Route des Grandes Alpes
Much of every Tour de France traverses the southernmost portions of iconic and historic Route des Grandes Alpes. Picking up in Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne through Serre Chevalier and then again from Barcelonnette to the Col d’Izoard, the peloton faces some of the largest climbs, including the Col du Galibier, Telegraph, Vars, and of course the Izoard. In total, the Route des Grandes Alpes stretches 684 kilometers from Thonon-les-Bains on Lake Geneva to Menton on the Cote d’Azur. Unlike the Route Napoleon, which parallels the Grandes Alpes about 55 kilometers to the west, the Route des Grandes Alpes started as a tourist and cycling endeavor by the Touring Club de France in 1909. In 1950 “Grandes” was added to the name and has been a key component of any French and foreign traveler’s summer experience. The Route offers unending views as it hugs the Italian border all the way south. In this portion of the Route, in Haute-Savoie and Savoie Departments, the path keeps a watchful eye on the tantalizingly close Mediterranean yet with incomparable interactions with ancient and modern Alpine culture, architecture, and heritage. Surely, this is one of the memorable drives to add to you bucket list.
Alpine Aluminum at its Best
High in the Alps is the gateway to the Galibier and Col du Telegraph, the town of Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne. While the Maurienne Valley is today known for stunning vistas and magnificent mountains, it was at one point also known as the “Valley of French Aluminum.” Indeed, thanks to the abundance of hydroelectric power coming from the region’s many dams, the production of aluminum skyrocketed in the 20th century to the point where six plants were dominating the industry. Today, only one still exists, in neighboring Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne. While the physical production has waned, the pride and local interest in the metal caused Saint-Michel to open the Espace Alu in 2007, the world’s only museum dedicated to aluminum. Spread across 600 square meters on three floors, this museum presents aluminum production and history in interactive ways, through art, science, products, and photos. Just as the Tour de France passes by, Espace Alu celebrates its 10th Anniversary. This is definitely one unique experience.
Celebrating with Sparkling Saint-Péray
Under the watchful gaze of the medieval ruins of Chateau de Crussol, directly opposite the Rhone from Valence is a unique and unexpected AOC of the Cotes-du-Rhone. Here, in the village of Saint-Péray is a sparkling and white wines. Perhaps it is the sparkling version that is particularly special in this part of France. The Cotes-du-Rhone is legendary for bold red wines. But here, we have a méthode traditionnelle sparkling wine that dry and acidic, but with floral overtones. Wine growing here began in the 15th century by villagers of Chateau Crussol. Even so, sparkling wine was not introduced here until 1829, directly inspired by the productions in Champagne. The white wines grow here because of the undulating hills (think Chateau Crussol) that allow for cooler temperatures conducive to white wine grapes being grown. The result is a wine flavored with hints of apricot, coffee, honeysuckle, and other herbs. Over the years, Saint-Péray wines have won the praise of popes, authors, and royalty. In total, the production area’s 73 hectares produce only 1,857 liters of wine. And only 9% of that is exported. So while you are en route for the Tour de France, stop by and try this island of white in a sea of red.
A Saint for the Alps
In the heart of the village of Saint-Sorlin-d’Arves, among the hordes of skiers and snowboarders who venture through this obscure hamlet, is a unique Baroque church that is worth a stop if driving through. The Eglise Saint-Saturnin was built in 1603 and dedicated to Saint Saturnin, a Greek who became the first Bishop of Toulouse before being martyred in the 3rd century. He is honored in this part of the Alps as the protector of cattle, which historically has been a major agricultural industry in the mountains. The interior of the church is intimate, with exquisite Baroque sculptures and paintings. While the inside is small and colorful, it is the exterior that really draws one’s attention. With its unusual tin roof and often exposed rock walls, the church gives a rustic yet refined feel. This is only made more pronounced by the mortuary crowns that adorn the exterior walls to prevent the items from being covered in snow and breaking. The church offers group and individual tours to visitors looking for more explanation about this distinctive tradition.
What Lies Beneath
Samoëns, stemming from a Latin translation for seven mountains in the Giffre Valley and at the base of the Col du Joux Plane, is a world of natural wonders. We often talk about the vistas and many caverns along the Tour de France route, but Samoëns is a very special place. It is home to the Jardin Botanique Alpin La Jaÿsinia, which since 1909 has proudly displayed the flora of this high alpine world. Below the Aiguille du Criou, however, lies a different kind of natural wonder that was unknown when the Jardin was established over 100 years ago. Here, the Gouffre Mirolda and Gouffre Jean-Bernard, two of the world’s deepest caverns lie under the mountain. On the north is Gouffre Jean-Bernard, discovered in 1959. At 1,602 meters, it was the deepest explored cave until 1980. On the south face of Criou, the Gouffre Mirolda was discovered by a shepherd in 1971 but not explored until much later. In fact, its depth of 1,733 meters held the world record from 2003-2004. That’s more than double the height of the current tallest building in the world and more than five times the height of the Eiffel Tower. That’s an amazing abyss to explore. With its single-entry point located at 1,880 meters above sea level and Samoëns’s elevation at 710 meters, the cave itself remarkably extends more than half a kilometer below the city. Unlike the Jardin, both caves are not open to the public, but their existence has made Samoëns a haven for professional spelunkers worldwide and leaves the rest of us to imagine this alien world under our feet.
Skiing Serre Chevalier
On the downside of the incomparable Galibier, the peloton glides down the Guisane Valley 1,239 meters into the ski town of La Salle-les-Alpes, home to the ski station of Serre Chevalier. Chevalier is the largest ski resort in the southern Alps with 61 lifts, 100 trails covering 250 kilometers, and 410 hectares (1,013 acres) of ski-able area. The snowpack may be low when compared to other parts of Europe with only about 388 centimeters of snow and 50 centimeter depth but a higher tree line means that the snow lasts and is protective in snowfall or high winds. Its proximity to the Italian border and the charm of its smaller resort villages means that Serre Chevalier gets a lot of business. Don’t let that scare you away though because sread out from Briançon to Monêtier-les-Bains, some thirteen kilometers in length, means that the crowds are spread out and often, the slopes are your own. The last Tour de France arrival at Serre Chevalier occurred six years ago when Andy Schleck won the stage and Cadel Evans went on to win the Yellow Jersey.
The Dynastar Factory
Sallanches is an alpine hub of 16,000 people. It is centrally located to many of the French ski resort towns, namely Chamonix, Megeve, Saint-Gervais-les-Bains, and others. It only makes sense that alpine businesses feel right at home but this was not always the case. Before 1965, the town’s population rose less than 2% per year and topping out at 5,000 residents. With the opening of the Mont Blanc Tunnel in 1965 however, Sallanches boomed. Suddenly its population boomed, nearly doubling over the next 15 years. Indicative of this growth is the Dynastar factory where 300,000 skis are produced every year and employing 150-200 people. Dynastar was founded in Sallanches in 1963. Rossignol later bought the brand but Dynastar continues to make its skis in France and is investing an additional 5 million euros to update the Sallanches plant.
A Place for Lovers
What is France but a land for love and lovers. It’s in the language, in the food, in the wine, and in the land. Paris may be the destination for many international lovers, but Valence lays claim to the place where this public demonstration of affection took center stage in an appropriately modest fashion. Not far from Valence’s beautiful old town is a riverside park and plaza Esplanade Champ de Mars. Rising 15 meters over the mighty Rhone, the park has been a local gathering place for several hundred years – since before the Revolution. It acts like a front porch for this city of some 70,000 inhabitants. With such an inviting spot, an elaborate bandstand was constructed in 1862 to anchor the space. With its elaborate ironwork and tile roof, the structure is very much a romantic French Empire style structure. A cartoonist named Raymond Peynet was passing through Valence in 1942. Sitting on a characteristically green bench in the Esplanade and was enamored by a lone violinist serenading a little girl. This cartoon entitled “La Symphonie Inachevée,” captured the hearts of millions. Peynet went on to become famous for his bandstand in Valence and images of lovers. The Esplanade and its main attraction remain as romantic as ever, luring starry-eyed lovers to its benches and bandstand, making for a fantastic place to bring your own love or just to sit back and people watch. Either way, enjoy the romantic landscapes and ambiance of the French culture.